Submission to Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

Coat of Arms, Australia

The Shepparton Interfaith Network was invited by the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to appear and make submissions to the Committee during its visit to Shepparton, which took place on Wednesday, 13 August 2014. Appearing for the Shepparton Interfaith Network were the President, Dr Frank Purcell, PhD, and the Secretary, Rev. Chris Parnell. A submission was made to the effect that the constitution, by way of preamble or insertion of a new section into the constitution, should recognise the spiritual dimensions of the cultures, languages and heritages which give purposeful meaning to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Submission from Rev. Chris Parnell, Interfaith Minister

We thank this Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People for the opportunity to address the committee on this day.

I am an ordained Interfaith Minister and currently serve as Secretary to the Shepparton Inter Faith Network.

The Shepparton Inter Faith Network has been formally and informally operating since the late 1980's when the Hospital Prayer Room was blessed in conjunction with Sheik Eljam Bardi. Since then, the Shepparton Interfaith Network was formally incorporated and has active participation from the Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh communities of the Goulburn Valley. There has also been a history of interaction with and support for the local indigenous communities, principally the Yorta Yorta Nation, in a number of our activities and reports which are found on our website,

The terms "interfaith" or "interfaith dialogue" refer to cooperative and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., "faiths") and spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels, with the aim of deriving a common ground in belief through a concentration on similarities between faiths, understanding of values, and commitment to the world. It is distinct from syncretism or alternative religion, in that dialogue often involves promoting understanding between different religions to increase acceptance of others, rather than to synthesise new beliefs.

If I may quote from our "Purpose of Inter Faith Network", our aims and goals are, inter-alia,

  1. to promote peace and harmony in our local communities;
  2. to build relationships of friendship and trust among members of the various faith groups in the area;
  3. to find ways of improving cross-cultural understanding, respect and tolerance by providing community and school education programmes
  4. to identify any social issues – racism, discrimination in housing, employment, access to education or health services and to encourage interfaith grassroots initiatives in addressing issues.

We (the Shepparton Interfaith Network) have a history of collaboration with the local Reconciliation Network and have participated in the national inquiry into Racism, and the more recent Respecting Differences Forum, both of which were conducted at Rumbalara.

I would like to examine broad spiritual and moral reasons for inclusion of a new section in the constitution with words to the effect of 'Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' is needed.

This is supported from spiritual perspective insofar as religion is a binding element in the culture and heritage of a society and uses language, ritual and ceremony to this effect.

If we examine the religious elements of the indigenous communities that comprised the language groups at the time of the First Fleet, then we would understand that the indigenous people had a strict way of living. And they also honoured the consciousness of God the Creator in everything. There was not really anything considered sacred and separate or non-sacred; they considered everything sacred. So there is a big difference in how, shall we say the Westerners think, or other races think. They were one with - and honoured - the land and all its resources; the Land and all it was had an integral spiritual relation with them.

But when the First Fleet came to Australia unfortunately they intruded into their way of living and the way the Indigenous Peoples honoured everything. There was a lack of understanding from where the white man came from (it is well known) which led to the indigenous peoples being torn apart. And torn apart is correct and even from their totemic understanding that has been lost, for many just have no idea who their parents were and who their tribal ancestors were.

The culture and heritage of the Indigenous peoples was embedded in their language and in their ceremonies. Sound, vibration, use of bark, stone, clay and ochres were elements of ritual. The use of clap sticks, clap boomerangs and bull-roarers are well known, in addition to responsibility for nurturance of the lands and sacred places through ceremonies and rituals. All of this was founded on language groups who all had responsibility for maintenance of their totemic ancestors and their own dreamtime stories. Language encapsulates the sacred vibration, the belief, the behaviour and the relations to the divine as expressed as relationship to the totemic ancestor and "creator-fella-long-time-ago" as Biami and Alcheringa are sometimes called.

If I can speak to my own experience of indigenous sacred places in my own story, then I might, with your forbearance tell of what happened to me at Uluru and afterwards. In the Australian Centennial Year, 1988, I travelled with a pilgrimage group from the now defunct National Pastoral Institute to Uluru and other places. I was an amateur photographer at the time, and was developing film in my own darkroom. While I was walking around Uluru, I heard an inner voice telling me not to take any photos of the women's sacred places around Uluru.

Well, I speak against myself, I did take photographs. When I returned to my darkroom with 20 rolls of film to develop, this particular roll of film - taken whilst walking around Uluru - all the photos came out except for those taken at women's sacred places. So, many years ago, I learned, personally, that sacred places are places of sacred power. It is a truth that energy grows where energy goes, and anything that has energy added to it becomes a locus of energy which may then be used - in ceremony and ritual - for specific purposes.

Such purposes, we, western and white, have since learned, are "Women's Business" and "Men's Business". Such stewardship of sacred places, some figures bandied about suggest 40,000 years of sacred rites and maintenance of this land; others suggest 60,000 years. Archaeological evidence at the Kariong site nearby Gosford - and others - suggest a much longer period of time of indigenous peoples living in this land. For the first peoples of this land, constitutional recognition is the giving of respect and dignity to the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This respect and dignity are elements of the human values inherent in the religions of humanity. Religion purports to the seeking of well-being, wellness, happiness and the desire to create a world of harmony and peace for all. We may do this through the five human values of truth, right action, love, peace and non-violence. Truth contains honesty, determination, fairness and trust. Right action includes manners, helpfulness, responsibility and perseverance. Love accommodates kindness, friendship, forgiveness, compassion and tolerance. Peace obliges patience, positiveness, self-discipline and thankfulness. Non violence scopes to consideration of others, loyalty, justice, respect and co-operation. We also find that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a cultural heritage and tradition which embody these values. Truth, right action, love, peace and non-violence ... are values which are embedded in the ceremonies, beliefs, cultural traditions and spiritual heritage of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Shepparton Interfaith Network is at present engaged in presentation of The Golden Rule to the faith communities with the Golden Rule Poster as adapted for Australia, which includes a statement from Australian Indigenous Religious Tradition.

Allow me to quote from the statement from Australian Indigenous Religious Tradition by Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr of the Dadirri, well known as the first indigenous Schoolteacher in the Northern Territory. Miriam-Rose developed a unique imagery characterised in her acclaimed series of paintings, Australian Stations of the Cross.

Aboriginal Spirituality:

Our identity with land and is sacred and unique. We have a very strong sense of community. All persons matter. All of us belong.

In this wise, we understand that the indigenous relationship to the land we live on has cultured and stewarded the land in a spiritual manner and is a binding relationship between land and people living therein, which is similar to the binding elements of covenant in the Hebrew Bible. This relationship between land and people is indelibly part of the broad sweep of Australian history and the knowledge that all peoples who live in this land share in this heritage.

To this end, on behalf of the Interfaith Networks, I recommend that there be an insertion in to the Constitution with words to the effect of:~

a) Acknowledging the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters;

b) Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;

c) Respecting the spiritual dimensions of the cultures, languages and heritages which give purposeful meaning to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;

In support of this, I point out that many religions make reference to divinity as light:

  • Hinduism and Sikhism refer to divinity as the highest light, the paramjyoti, a self effulgent light
  • Judaism has the narrative of Moses shielding his face with a cloth as it was too bright after his meeting with the Divine on the mountain as he had taken on the effulgence of the Divine
  • Christianity in the Nicene Creed refers to Jesus as "light from light" and in the Roman Canon, prays that we may find in the presence of the Divine, "light, happiness and peace".

I'd like to cite from The Cotton Papers, The Land of the Sleeping Gods, a Tasmanian work which gives the writings and drawings of William Jackson Cotton, a Quaker, and Dr George Fordyce Story, who were early Tasmanian settlers and recorded their interactions with the local language groups, and wrote about his interactions and stories learned from one larnu (holy man) by name of Timler, who had rights to travel across all language groups and to undertake rituals and ceremonies for those peoples. Timler was the last larnu (holy man) of the Brayleny peoples. Here is one of the stories recorded by Joseph Cotton, from the legends of Moinee:

There was a certain amount of good and evil in man. He is not perfect. If he became so he would become a god and rise to the Milky Way, leaving Earth uninhabited; the natives preferred not to risk the elevation. The "little folk" are the living shadows of man, reflecting on him an even balance of good and bad, keeping him in the "earth condition".

If we take the reference to the "Milky Way" as a reference to returning or ascending to the light that is mentioned in the other religions, then we have a much earlier reference than that of the western religions of the light that is mentioned in these religious teachings and doctrines.

Rev. Chris Parnell
Shepparton Interfaith Network,
13 August 2014

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